TEL AVIV — The great patriot, pacifist, and father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi, proved that self-sacrifice may be a more potent weapon than force. By the simple tactic of hunger strikes, he brought sea change to India. His numerous fasts over three decades pressured the British toward Indian self-rule, improved the status of the Untouchables caste, and protested against Muslim Hindu civil violence.
Gandhi's weapon remains a vital one, employed by underdogs worldwide to bring attention to their plight and press for their cause. It is undertaken foremost by prisoners, whose only weapon is their own bodies. In Turkey this year at least 64 maximum-security prisoners died as a result of fasting; in China a journalist began fasting in June to protest a 10-year sentence for "subverting the state's authority." Last month alone, three imprisoned Cuban dissident journalists began fasting, as did a political activist sentenced in Egypt, 250 common-law prisoners in Bahrain, 4,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israel, and detained Burmese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hunger strikes are also a weapon for the disenfranchised. Fasts were held this year by 300 Afghans in Belgium to protest the handlingof their political-asylum applications, by Austrians opposing a nuclear plant across the Czech border, and by victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster to press for just compensation.
Even as these desperate individuals decline sustenance in a dangerous effort to be noticed and achieve justice, in London, American stuntman David Blaine is busy fasting not for principle - but for money and fame. He'll receive £5 million for a publicity stunt currently creating an uproar in the English capital. Since Sept. 5, Mr. Blaine has been suspended in a transparent box over the Thames river on view to all Londoners, vowing to imbibe nothing but water for 44 days.
He has boasted that his stunt was inspired by a short story by Franz Kafka. In the mordant, unforgettable "A Hunger Artist," published in 1924, Kafka recounts with pathos and enigma the tale of a man whose career was public fasting. Even at the height of the hunger artist's fame, his impresario limited the fast to 40 days, claiming that was the outside limit of public interest. Kafka's story, however, is about the artist at the sorry nadir of his career. Whereas his fasts had once attracted enormous crowds, "the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished," and he is compelled to resort to a shabby cage in the rear of a circus. In the end, there are no witnesses to his last self-imposed limitless fast, from which he dies.
Blaine's vapid stunt, filmed live on British television, is snarling traffic and attracting an escalating throng of daily hecklers, even embroiling Paul McCartney in a shoving match at the scene. It has little in common with the tragic overtones of Kafka, whose wasted protagonist truly perished from neglect by a fickle world.
But there is irony at work today, too. Blaine as hunger artist may bear more resemblance to Kafka's hunger artist than he might wish. Contrary to his expectations, instead of honor, Blaine has been the butt of insults, taunts, and even an attack. Blaine, too, covets respect and admiration. His Manhattan publicity backers are sodistressed by the public reaction they're considering ending the fast.
Whereas Kafka's story created a character full of pathos, the author's real criticism was aimed at the spectators - symbols of humankind's triviality, callousness, and fickleness.
Today's crowd is smart enough not to fall for Blaine's tasteless stunt. Instead, their disdain is feeding Blaine his due.
Kafka wrote his story before Gandhi conceived of the hunger strike as the potent political tactic of the powerless. The tool of committed ideologues should not billed as cheap entertainment. Perhaps that's what the angry London public is inchoately trying to tell Blaine. He should get out of his box and have breakfast - leaving hunger strikes to nobler causes.
• Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer, teaches at the Tel Aviv University Law School.